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Thornton Wilder (April 17, 1897-December 7, 1975) was an American playwright and novelist. He became most famous for his play, Our Town, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He also won Pulitzers for his play The Skin of Our Teeth and his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. He lived in China and California as a child, but moved all around as an adult. He studied at Oberlin College, Yale University, and Princeton University. He was a professor of French, comparative literature, and poetry at different points in his life. Though he was an award winning writer, he always thought of himself first as a teacher.

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Wilder was born in Madison, Wisconsin to Amos Parker Wilder and Isabella Niven Wilder. His father was a newspaper editor and U.S. diplomat, so their family moved to China for a period of Wilder’s youth. When he came back, he moved with his mother, brother, and two sisters Ojai, California in 1912 because of the political conditions in China. Both of his parents were highly intellectual, reading their children book and plays, and teaching them multiple languages. His father insisted that the children work on farms each summer. His mother was the first woman to be elected to public office in Hamden, Connecticut. After he and his siblings moved with his mother to California, he was teased in school for being overly intellectual. He attended Oberlin college where he studied Greek and Classics, received his Bachelors of Arts from Yale University, and received his Masters in French from Princeton University.

 

His siblings were all accomplished. His older brother, Amos, was a highly regarded bible scholar and tennis champion. His sister, Charlotte, was an award winning poet, who suffered a nervous breakdown in 1941 and was institutionalized for the remainder of her life. His sister, Janet, was a biology professor. Finally, there was Isabel, to whom he was closest. She, herself, was an accomplished writer and actress, but also spent much of her life acting as Wilder’s secretary, manager, and literary advisor.

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Wilder published his first play The Trumpet Shall Sound in 1920 in Yale Literary Magazine. Soon after, he left Yale to serve as corporal in the Coast Artillery Corps in World War I. After he returned eight months later, he completed his degree and went to Italy to study archaelogy. The product of this venture was The Cabala (1926). He then went on to write The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1927, which tells the story of five victims who fall off of a dangerous bridge in Peru, and of the man who is looking to learn about the individuals. He received his first Pulitzer prize for the novel.

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January 12, 1953, Thornton Wilder on the cover of 'Time' magazine 

By this point, Wilder was primarily a professor of comparative literature and poetry. While teaching at the University of Chicago, he met Gertrude Stein, with whom he became very close and who ultimately influenced him heavily. He wrote the play Our Town in 1938. The play, which follows the ordinary lives of ordinary people in Grovers Corners, New Hampshire, earned Wilder his second Pulitzer.

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Publicity photograph of Thornton Wilder pantomiming scenery while performing the role of the Stage Manager in Our Town. Wellesley, MA, 1950.

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Thornton Wilder playing Stage Manager in Williamstown Theatre Festival's 1959 'Our Town'

 

During the 1940s, he worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and a play called The Emporium which was based off of Franz Kafka’s works. He enlisted in the air force during WWII, and wrote The Ides of March upon his return in 1948.

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In 1943, Wilder published his play The Skin of Our Teeth. Although it was not initially well-received (some people exited the theater after the first act), he ended up winning a Pulitzer for it. Others of Wilder’s work include: An Angel That Troubled Waters and Other Plays (1928), The Woman of Andros (1930), The Wreck Of The 5:25 (1957), Bernice (1957), and Alcestiad (1977), and The Matchmaker (1954), Hello Dolly! (1964).

Wilder received many awards for his work including:

The American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Fiction (1952)

The first National Medal for Literature (1962)

The Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963)

The National Book Committee's Medal for Literature (1965)

 

Wilder was never married, and is believed to have had relationships with a few men. He is said to have been a very devoted friend, spending most of his social time with his friends including Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather and Montgomery Clift. He lived the last years of his life with his sister Isabel.

Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Thursday, 17 April 2014
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